Esper voices hope for continued Seoul-Tokyo intel-sharing pact
SEOUL, Aug. 7 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he would encourage South Korea and Japan to continue their military information-sharing pact as a common defense tool against regional challenges, including North Korea.
South Korea has hinted at the possibility of scrapping the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) after Japan imposed export restrictions against Seoul in apparent retaliation over a row surrounding wartime forced labor.
"I would honestly encourage the -- the intel-sharing to continue. It's key to us in our common defense, if you will, against North Korea," Esper said on Tuesday en route to Tokyo as part of his ongoing Asian trip, according to a transcript provided by his office.
Stressing that the three nations face North Korea as a near-term threat and China as a bigger challenge in the longer term, Esper added, "So, I'd ask them to both resolve this issue quickly and let's really focus on North Korea and China."
The 2016 information-sharing agreement, aimed at coping better with threats from North Korea, has been automatically renewed each year in August. It will expire in November, however, if either party notifies the other of its intention to scrap it 90 days in advance. This year's notification deadline is Aug. 24.
From Japan, Esper will then fly to South Korea to meet with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo on Friday.
Asked about the combined exercise between Seoul and Washington which North Korea has strongly denounced while conducting a series of missile launches, Esper said the allies have no plan to scale back future exercises "at this point."
"We made some adjustments after the presidents' -- plural -- last meeting last year and we're -- we're still abiding by those, and -- and -- and again, in order to open the door for diplomacy -- diplomacy. But at the same time, we need to maintain our readiness and making sure that we're prepared," Esper noted.
South Korea and the U.S. practically kicked off their summertime military exercise on Monday by staging what they called "the crisis management staff training" as a kind of lead-up, which is to be followed by the command post exercise in earnest for about two weeks from Sunday, according to sources.
While stressing that the U.S. is monitoring the situation closely, the secretary said it is also needed "to be careful not to overreact, and not to -- to get ourselves into a situation where diplomacy is closed off."
Esper also stressed that he has not asked allies in Asia to deploy the U.S. intermediate-range missiles on their soil.
"I have never asked anybody about the deployment of missiles in Asia ... We are quite some ways away from that. It's going to take, again, a -- a few years to actually have some type of initial operational-capable missiles, whether they are ballistic, cruise -- you name it, to be able to deploy," the secretary said.
Any decision of the best location for those "conventional systems to deter conflict" will require "a lot of dialogue," he added.
Washington pledged to deploy its intermediate-range missiles in Asia and elsewhere after consultation with its allies and partner nations to maintain deterrence after withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, an anti-missile treaty with Russia, last week.
Some media outlets have speculated that South Korea, as well as America's key allies in the region, such as Japan and Australia, could be a candidate site for the U.S. weapons. China on Monday warned the three nations not to accept them, vowing countermeasures.
South Korea immediately dismissed such speculation, with the defense ministry saying it has not had any official discussions on the matter with the U.S. nor does it plan to do so.
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